Handbell FAQ

How Do We Get Started With Handbells?

Teaching musical concepts to people of varying interests and abilities is a challenge faced by music instructors at many levels.

Younger students or those who have little or no musical background must be taught basic music principles, and be given the encouragement they’ll need to participate in the music program in the years ahead. For those with music knowledge, the task is to encourage continued participation, and to refine and build on the musical skills they’ve learned in the past.

Conventional music programs, with their emphasis on band and choral participation, may not always be the answer. Many people, for example, find it difficult to sing before others, even as part of a group. And still others may lack the interest or dedication required to master a traditional musical instrument. The result can be discouragement, frustration, and even an unwillingness to continue with music education in the future.

Instead, the answer may lie with two different looking, but similar musical instruments:  Handbells, which have been used as a learning tool for more than a thousand years, and handchimes, a product first developed in the 1980s.

Are Handbells for Today?

In today’s institutions, handbells are used for a number of reasons.  First, they offer a sound unlike any other instrument. They’re beautiful to listen to, making them an attractive and motivational choice for hundreds of years.

Second, handbells are easy to use, putting them within reach of even the least musically inclined.

And third, handbells are easy to afford.  Institutions can equip a music program for a relatively modest cost-per-individual, especially when compared against traditional band or orchestra instruments.  A single set of handbells can be shared across multiple classrooms and choirs for added economy. It’s also possible to start with a small set and build to larger and larger sets as budgets and programs dictate.

Where Do Handbells Fit Within The Music Program?

Handbells can fulfill several important functions:  development of individuals’ musical skills, encouragement of teamwork, socialization and self-esteem, and expansion of the music program.

Teachers can readily address rhythm, dynamics, key signatures, and notation in a group setting with handbells, and over time teach everything from duration and loudness to timbre, texture, and style.

Handbells also teach individuals the importance of group cooperation and team spirit, an important concept in any ensemble program. The very nature of a handbell choir requires individuals to work together if their instruments are to make music.

Participation in a handbell program can also help build confidence and self-esteem for those who have difficulty finding achievement elsewhere. Since handbells are easy to play, success can come quickly--even to those not particularly gifted, either musically, artistically, or academically. What’s more, it can provide the pleasures and commitment of a musical ensemble experience to students who have not invested years in learning more traditional band and orchestra instruments. Perhaps most important, the flexibility and growth inherent in a handbell program lets students begin at the beginning and progress as far as they might desire.

Handbells can also fulfill at least two important objectives:  the educational objective of challenging individuals with a limitless range of ever more demanding arrangements, and the performance objective of presenting magnificent music to public audiences. As such, a performing choir can help any institution establish and maintain a visible presence in its community--not just by staging concerts within the facility itself, but by reaching out to those in nursing homes, hospitals, shopping malls and other public venues.

Where to Begin: The Instruments?

The size of your first handbell set depends both on your budget and on the number of individuals to be served. Although single-octave handbell sets are available, the practical minimum for making music and teaching an appreciable number of individuals is the two-octave set, 25 handbells from G4 (the G below Middle C) to G6. The maximum practical number of individuals to simultaneously play a two-octave set is fifteen; the ideal number is seven or eight.

Both handbell sets grow by the addition of additional handbells on both ends of the set. A three-octave set, for example, comprises 37 handbells from C4 to C7. A set of this size can be rung by as many as 22 individuals, but a more practical number--allowing each ringer to handle two diatonics--is eleven students. Eventually, large or musically adventurous groups can work toward playing handbell sets as large as seven octaves:  85 handbell sets, from C2 to C9.

But growth through acquisition of instruments is only one side of the story; growth through instruction, practice, and commitment is the other. Even with a limited range of handbell sets, the devoted instructor and ringers can pursue complex music of an almost limitless scope. With the possible exception of the small, two-octave range, truly challenging music is available for choirs of every size. It’s worth pointing out that easy material is available for choirs of all sizes, too.

It’s also worth pointing out that teachers of music have little to fear when embarking on a new program for the first time. Basic playing techniques aren’t only easy to teach; they’re easy to learn from readily available training materials that Schulmerich can provide.

Where to Begin: Care and Performance Supplies?

Handbells are relatively self-contained instruments and need little in the way of support equipment. Our handbells are sold with hard shell cases with individual cavities for each bell, and should be stored in their cases when not in use.  Although little maintenance is required, the proper care, handling, and polishing of handbells should be carried out by individuals as part of the basic instructional program. Individuals are encouraged to wear clean, lint-free gloves when handling the handbells, and occasional polishing with a good-quality bronze polish, available from the Schulmerich, will help preserve the handbells’ finish and appearance..

Schulmerich offers a wide range of additional products to enhance care and performance, but only a few are required for the new program.  Special height-adjustable tables offered by Schulmerich, for example, which are built to the proper height for comfortable ringing and supplied in three-foot lengths for easy configuration, are nice to have; but any sturdy tables will do for getting started. However, table pads--typically of four-inch-thick foam--are necessary both to protect handbells from hard table tops and to permit certain ringing techniques like plucking, martellato, and malleting.

Where to Begin: Resources and Support?

A key resource is the Handbell Musicians of America. Headquartered in Dayton, Ohio.  Handbell Musicians of America sponsors seminars nationwide, publishes the bimonthly Overtones magazine, and serves as a clearinghouse for information on all aspects of the handbell world--including music resources, performance tips, training materials, and more.

Once You’ve Begun Now What?

There’s little doubt that an educational handbell program will evolve into a performance program, so it’s important to keep in mind the basics of managing any performance program, however informal it may be.

First, establish and stick to a rehearsal schedule that’s conveniently worked into your program.

Second, keep performances and rehearsals fresh by periodically updating your choir’s music. This is also important in keeping pace with a ringer’s abilities.

For many individuals, participation in a handbell choir is the ideal way to put into practice the musical skills they’ve learned. Your choir can perform during the same programs as your choral or instrumental ensembles. Or it can perform in other venues, such as shopping areas, hospitals, nursing homes, churches and other schools.